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The Appeal of Mormonism

In the last quarter-century, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints has grown as fast as any denomination in the world. Beginning in 1830 with 30 members, the numbers of its members passed 268,000 by the turn of the century, one million shortly after World War II, and four million in 1978. In the year 2002 Mormon president Gordon B. Hinkley claimed his church had over 11 million members (“The Church Goes Forward,” Ensign magazine, May 2002, p. 4).

The appeal of the Latter-Day Saints seems to lie largely in that of a loving Christian community (which should of course be found in every Catholic parish but which, we must admit, is not always clearly in evidence). Unlike some of the more “unworldly” sects, the LDS church is down-to-earth in many ways, with a strong emphasis on practical charity. It takes great care to share its resources for the assistance of its own aged, sick, poor, handicapped, and unemployed members. Education is given a high priority. At the church’s Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, the largest religious-affiliated university in the U.S., full-time enrollment for fall semester 2002 totaled 29,808 (www.byu.edu/about/factfile/stud-ff4.html#enro).

The LDS church is not without its intellectuals and apologists, but in general it does not tend to emphasize the need for rational evidence as a criterion of religious truth. Its missionaries and teachers prefer to appeal powerfully to the emotions (see sidebar). They encourage each other—and potential converts—to look for God in the experience of their own hearts, imagining that internal feelings of conviction, serenity, or “burning in the heart” can be assumed to be the testimony of the Holy Spirit. By repeating to each other their absolute, unshakable faith in Joseph Smith’s trustworthiness, Mormons reinforce an essentially blind faith that dismisses any persistent questioning or critical appraisal of their “prophet” and his message as evidence of insincerity, lack of true prayerfulness, or satanic hardness of heart.

This sheer dogmatism bears a surprising affinity with the apparent sophistication of liberal Christianity, which relies subjectively on a “lived experience of faith.” While spurning rational argument for God’s existence and the objective truth of revelation, Mormonism can have a powerful impact on those who may be gullible, lonely, or insecure. It is important for Catholics to be aware of this if they are going to try talking turkey with the zealous young men who come knocking at the door.

There is a seeming paradox in the way Latter-Day Saints approach the non-Mormon (“Gentile”) world. On the one hand they are unsurpassed in the zeal with which they seek converts. But on the other hand they are much more cautious than most religious groups about providing access to their various theological works and “scriptures” (apart from the Book of Mormon, which is always readily available). You will not find public LDS bookshops and reading rooms where the inquirer can browse at will without being accosted.

Mormons much prefer to introduce outsiders to their doctrines gradually. In a face-to-face situation they can control the level of doctrinal input and the flow of conversation. There is a good reason for this rather secretive procedure; and while hostile critics tend to see it as deviousness, the Mormons themselves would consider it a prudent and charitable method of evangelization. The fact is that, while the LDS church promotes an image of Christian normalcy by publicly emphasizing the many features of its creed that are similar (or at least sound similar) to traditional Christian ideas, its true beliefs are bizarre. They would alienate many potential converts irretrievably if they were bluntly spelled out all at once rather than being introduced little by little.

Cases have been recorded of LDS converts abandoning the Mormon church when, after a year or more of membership, they finally realized with dismay what the Mormons really mean by some of the Christian-sounding words they use. For while the LDS “Articles of Faith” sound familiar in many ways to those who have been brought up in a Christian culture, they are given a totally different meaning.

Mormons like to say, for instance, that they believe in the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—and in the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, without a human father. But, as we shall see, their understanding of these doctrines has nothing in common with the authentic Christian interpretation.

Most sects, and even other world religions such as Judaism and Islam, share with Catholics the same basic, monotheistic belief—that is, belief in one God, a spiritual Being far beyond our comprehension who is eternal, unchangeable, all-knowing, and all-powerful, the personal Creator and Lord of the entire universe and all that exists in it. The Mormons, in sharp contrast, are polytheists. They believe that the cosmos is eternal and uncreated and that it is inhabited by a great many gods (and goddesses) who are not different in their essential nature from us humans. We shall turn now to look more closely at the origin of this church and its “restored gospel,” which is supposed to be identical with that preached by Jesus and the early Christians.

Visions and Golden Plates

The story of the Latter-Day Saints begins with the birth of Joseph Smith Jr. on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont. As Mormons themselves are quick to point out, his family was poor, and Joseph never received much formal education. In his autobiography (now published in the volume Pearl of Great Price and regarded as divinely inspired scripture) Smith tells that after his family moved to Palmyra, New York, he became engrossed at the age of 14 in a religious revival movement that was sweeping the countryside. In searching for the true faith he was troubled and confused by all the conflicting Protestant versions of the gospel—Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and so on.

In response to the Bible’s promise of wisdom to the honest seeker (James l:5), Joseph tells how he prayed for guidance, and was “immediately” treated to a supernatural manifestation. A terrifying darkness seemed to envelop him, but this was soon followed by a “pillar of light” brighter than the sun which delivered him from this “enemy power.” And then:

“I saw two personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spoke unto me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other, ‘This is my beloved Son. Hear him’” (Pearl of Great Price 2:17).

These “personages” then told Joseph that he should not join any of the existing Christian “sects” for they were all wrong: “all of their creeds were an abomination,” and all those who were members were corrupt (ibid. 2:19).

Smith goes on to claim that three years after this, on September 21, 1823, he experienced a second vision, in which an angel appeared to him:

“He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do. . . . He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants. Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummin—deposited with the plates . . . and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book” (ibid.).

This exalted messenger directed him to the west side of a nearby hill where Smith tells us that, sure enough, he unearthed the golden plates and other objects in a stone box. But before he could remove them, the angel appeared again and told him he was to wait exactly four years before he took them. Accordingly we learn that on September 22, 1827, Joseph returned to the hallowed spot and received the Book of Mormon, inscribed on the plates in “Reformed Egyptian” (a language unknown to non-Mormon scholars) from the angel. He kept them for two years or so, translating them with the miraculous help of the “Urim and Thummim.”

Exactly how he made use of these objects (if at all) is not made clear. One of Smith’s associates, Martin Harris, testified that even before securing the plates, Joseph possessed a special stone that he would place in his hat. Then, pulling his hat closely over his face, he would claim to discern where money or other treasure was buried in the ground. This, according to eyewitness David Whitener, was the procedure he used when translating the plates, which were concealed from others in the room behind a screen and under a tablecloth or pillowcase (Walter Martin, The Maze of Mormonism, pp. 50–51). Smith’s wife Emma also testified as to how she acted as one of his scribes.

“I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour” (ibid. p. 50).

A number of witnesses allegedly saw the golden plates and left their testimonies. Harris, Whitener, and another assistant, Oliver Cowdery, swore in a signed statement that they had “seen the plates” and “the engravings which are upon the plates.” In the same statement they also affirmed their certainty “that [the plates] had been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us.” Later, eight more witnesses—mostly from the Smith and Whitener families—also signed a statement testifying that they had seen and handled the plates, “which have the appearance of gold.”

Finally, when the translation was complete, Smith tells us that he returned the plates at the angel’s command. Cowdery later told Brigham Young, Smith’s successor as head of the Mormon Church and pioneer of Utah, that he and Smith took them back to the “Hill Cumorah” and deposited them underground in a room full of other plates (Ivan Barrett, Joseph Smith and the Restoration: A History of the Church to 1846, p.118). Presumably, the Latter-Day Saints believe they are hidden there to this day.

New Revelations, New Church

The Book of Mormon was only the first in a constant stream of new “revelations” that Joseph Smith handed down during the next 15 years—135 in all. Many of these are now printed in the other two volumes that Mormons recognize along with the Protestant Bible as divinely inspired scripture: Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

An initial problem was to secure the publication of the Book of Mormon, which local printers apparently did not consider a potential best-seller. The difficulty was overcome by a convenient new revelation: God told Smith that Martin Harris must sell part of his farm in order to finance the venture. Harris promptly obeyed, to the tune of $3,000, and the first edition of 5,000 copies rolled off the press in 1830. On April 6 that year, the new Church was formally established with 30 members at Fayette, New York.

There was much hostility from the local populace, many of whom regarded Smith as a charlatan and a thief. The infant church, though growing through the zealous proclamation of the “restored gospel,” was forced to migrate through several states during the 1830s, all under the guidance of precise revelatory directions given through the prophet.

The “saints” moved to Jackson County, Missouri, which Smith revealed would become “Zion”—the “New Jerusalem” where Christ would soon return to earth to reign in glory. (God told Smith that Jackson County was the original site of the Garden of Eden, and the lost tribes of Israel were also expected to return there eventually from their long, secluded exile up beyond the Arctic Circle). At Kirtland, Ohio, Smith found himself in trouble with the law on financial charges. In Missouri, the leading church officials were tarred and feathered then run out of town.

Conscious, no doubt, of the saying that prophets are not honored in their own country, the persecuted Mormons moved onwards to the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois, where they founded the town of Nauvoo (a word Smith said was Hebrew for “beautiful place”). Here he reigned for some years, not only as Prophet, but also as “General” and “Chief Justice.” His word, in fact, was law.

But after the neighboring citizens became increasingly incensed at Mormon propaganda and practices, including reported instances of polygamy, Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested and jailed. There, at Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844, an angry mob stormed the jail and shot dead the two Smith brothers while they were awaiting trial. The Latter-Day Saints revere their founder as a martyr, but it is doubtful whether he qualifies for that designation in its classical sense: Far from surrendering his life voluntarily for the sake of his faith, Joseph Smith Jr. died with a gun in his hand in a true Western-style shootout.

Shortly afterward, under the charismatic leadership of Smith’s elected successor, Brigham Young, the Mormons migrated once again, this time far out west, where they settled permanently by the Great Salt Lake and built up their community, often in the face of hardship and opposition and at the cost of bloodshed on both sides in the initial struggles with the “Gentile” world. That community endures to this day as a powerful social, economic, and political influence in the state of Utah. Such success may appear to be a sign of credibility, but we shall do well to examine the Mormons’ claim on our allegiance more closely.

Credible Revelation

In assessing the truth or falsity of an alleged revelation from on high, a prudent person will want to apply several criteria. One obvious test will be the content of the alleged revelation itself. If it turns out to be incoherent or self-contradictory, or if it is irreconcilable with other truths that we can ascertain by our natural human reasoning, then, of course, it cannot be true. (We shall look at the doctrinal content of Mormonism in due course.) If it passes this test, that will prove only that it may be true. We shall need more evidence before we can wisely accept in faith that it is true.

It is unreasonable, of course, to go to the opposite extreme and demand absolute, scientific proof before we are prepared to believe. That would be “stacking the cards” in advance against God. The so-called rationalist who rests his skepticism toward any revealed religion on this principle ignores the fact that God may wish to respect the freedom he has given us to exercise faith as a virtue, the virtue of loving trust in his truthfulness. Persuasive indicators are all we can reasonably expect. Absolute proof, by its very nature, could only come with that direct, face-to-face knowledge of God that is what Christians meant by the heavenly reward that follows our period of trial here on earth.

Plausibility of the alleged revelation, then, is not enough. Religion is an area where it is to some extent necessary to judge a book by its cover; that is, to judge a purported revelation by the credentials of the revealer and not only by the content of his message. It would be easy, for a Catholic writer to score cheap points against the Mormons simply by setting out LDS theology in a polemical style, relying on its oddity and unfamiliarity to immunize most of his readers from any potential sympathies they might feel for the ministrations offered by young Mormon door-knockers.

To do so would also be intellectually dishonest, a mere appeal to prejudice of the sort that can just as easily be turned against Catholics by unbelievers and pagans. To those hearing them for the first time, many of our own beliefs—biblical inspiration, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Real Presence, and so—sound just as implausible or outlandish as some of the Mormon doctrines.

The point is that we puny mortals—living in a tiny corner of a vast cosmos with very little direct knowledge of ultimate reality and biased unconsciously by all sorts of passing cultural and philosophical influences—must be cautious about presuming to know in advance what sorts of things God would or would not do or reveal. We must be especially cautious about assuming that any given report of supernatural phenomena (miracles, angels, and so on) can be dismissed as incredible to “modern man.”

As one who finds no difficulty in believing that on Mount Sinai God once manifested himself through tablets of stone, I do not feel especially inclined to laugh out of court the suggestion that on the Hill Cumorah he spoke again on plates of gold. After due consideration, to be sure, I believe the one and reject the other. But this is not because stone seems to be more credible than gold as a preferred medium of divine communication, nor because I find it self-evident that the wastes of Sinai are a far more appropriate venue for mystic divine revelations than the rolling hills of upstate New York.

Nor, with respect to our Protestant brethren, is it primarily because I am confident that my personal interpretation of the Bible is more competent than that found in Joseph Smith’s supposed plates and other supplementary “scriptures.” Indeed, Mormons in controversy with Protestants habitually make the telling point that the “Bible alone” principle is not only logically incoherent (none of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible claims that itself and the other 65—and no others—constitute the sole source of God’s revealed truth) but leads irremediably to the plethora of conflicting denominations that, as young Joseph Smith realized, could scarcely reflect the true plan of Christ for his Church. Latter-Day Saints point out—very sensibly—that the Bible needs some sort of infallible clarification from an ongoing, living Church authority if it is to be a focus of unity rather than division among Christians.

No, the basic reason I accept Moses’ tablets but reject Joseph Smith’s plates is that the former are offered to me, as it were, by a vastly more competent-looking authority. In looking for signs of trustworthiness in a self-styled bearer of divine revelation, I find that the Catholic Church—the organized communion of Jesus’ followers that has existed continuously from the first century A.D., recognizing the leadership of the apostle Peter and the line of Roman bishops—has credentials infinitely more impressive that those of Joseph Smith Jr.

Joseph Smith: A Credible Prophet?

In the first place, it is clear that as a youth Smith was a practitioner of the occult and superstitious practice of divination, which has always been emphatically forbidden by Scripture and the Church. We have already noted his method of “translating” the golden plates. In many preliterate cultures, including that of the native North Americans, the practice of gazing at special stones (especially luminous quartz crystals) with a view to obtaining secret knowledge has been common. Among the less educated early–nineteenth-century Caucasians in upper New York, the practice of peep-stone gazing or glass-looking was sufficiently widespread to be outlawed as a form of charlatanry.

Smith later denied any participation in such activities, but the evidence cannot be ignored. Several years after Smith assumed the role of Mormon prophet, his disillusioned father-in-law, Isaac Hale, recalled how, in November 1825, a team of “money-diggers” employed Smith. “His occupation was that of seeing, or pretending to see by means of a stone placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face. In this way he pretended to discover minerals and hidden treasures. His appearance at this time was that of a careless young man—not very well educated and very saucy and insolent to his father” (Martin, p. 34).

Hale noted that, when the team began digging (without success) in the area where Smith had told them an old Spanish fortune was buried, he claimed that “the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see.” The diggers soon gave up, and Smith, who had been boarding at Hale’s house, took off, leaving an unpaid bill of $12.68 (ibid.).

Hale was not alone in testifying to Smith’s dubious activities. On December 11, 1833, another neighbor, Willard Chase, swore an affidavit before a Wayne County justice of the peace stating the way in which Smith obtained his peep-stone. In 1822, Smith and his brother Alvin assisted Chase in digging a well. Chase found a curious-looking stone, and, as they were examining it, “Joseph put it in his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.”

Smith wanted to keep the stone, but Chase—who desired it as a curio—would only lend it to him. While he had the stone on loan (two years or so) Joseph “began to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in it.” In about 1825, some time after it was returned, Joseph’s brother Hyrum asked Chase to lend the stone again. He agreed, but in the fall of 1826, Hyrum angrily refused to give it back. Chase asked for it back more in 1830. Hyrum Smith again refused him, shaking his fist and telling him that “Joseph made use of it in translating his Bible” (ibid. pp.221–222).

Joseph Smith was in fact convicted of “glass-looking” in the Bainbridge Court in March 1826. The court record was printed twice in the nineteenth century, but the original was for some reason unobtainable, providing LDS apologists with a loop hole: They denied emphatically that the court record was genuine, admitting that if it was it would be a fatal blow to the credibility of their prophet (e.g., Hugh Nibley, The Myth Makers, p.142). However, on July 28, 1971, an independent document was discovered that verified the authenticity of the missing court record. It was an original bill of costs in the handwriting of Justice Albert Neely, detailing his fees for a list of cases tried in 1826. There, in the middle of the list, is the name of Joseph Smith, convicted for the “misdemeanor” of “glass-looking” on 20 March 1826. (Martin, pp. 35–38). The Maze of Mormonism reproduces a photograph of this document and gives still further contemporary evidence of Smith’s “peeping” activities with his stone and hat.

Smith’s consistency is also open to serious question. The final, official version of Smith’s discovery of the plates is, as we have seen, that the angel Moroni appeared and informed him how to get them. But two neighbors, the brothers Hiel and Joseph Lewis (regarded by their fellow citizens as “truthful, honorable, Christian gentlemen”) testified that in 1827, when he first began translating the alleged plates, Smith’s original story was that his mystic information was none other than the ghost of a bearded Spaniard, with his throat cut from ear to ear and blood streaming down. Not one word about angels (ibid. pp.335–336)!

Perhaps even more damning, the Lewis brothers recall that in June 1828, two years before the foundation of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith approached their father, Rev. Nathaniel Lewis, and expressed the wish to join his denomination, the Methodist Episcopal church. However, Smith was so notorious as a person of bad character that the Methodists agreed to keep him only if he agreed to submit to a disciplinary investigation and publicly renounce his fraudulent and hypocritical practices. Joseph confirmed their suspicions that his application was motivated by a desire to gain respectability by declining these conditions promptly and having his name struck off the Methodist roll after only three days (ibid. pp. 336–337).

The glaring inconsistency, of course, is that, according to Smith’s “divinely inspired” autobiography in the Pearl of Great Price, God himself had already told Joseph in the first vision of 1820 that he must not join any of the existing “sects,” all of which were “corrupt.” What business then had he in becoming a Methodist in 1828?

Also, Smith’s handling of money scarcely inspires confidence in his reliability. G. T. Harrison, a practicing attorney and former Mormon, researched the court records of Geauga County, Ohio, and found that 13 lawsuits were brought against Smith between 1837 and 1839 by creditors, for sums totaling nearly $25,000. Most of these resulted from the failure of a highly dubious “bank” that he had set up in Kirtland in contravention of Ohio state laws.

Although the LDS church has subsequently denied that he was ever proven guilty, the court records show at least five convictions (Martin, pp.38–39). Smith by that time had a large following of reverential disciples who had to bail him out constantly. The reader may assess the prophet’s response to these charges in the light of Christ’s teaching on humility and praying for our persecutors. In his History of the Church (6:408–409) Smith writes:

“In all these affidavits, indictments, it is all of the devil—all corruption. Come on! ye persecutors! ye false swearers! All hell, boil over! Ye burning mountains, roll down your lava! For I will come out on the top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as 1. The followers of Jesus ran away from him; but the Latter-Day Saints never ran away from me yet.”

(Part two of this article will run in next month’s issue.)

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